A wise man once said “we can’t kill our way to victory” in Afghanistan. And, I might add, we can’t keep shooting behind a moving target either. If you want to hit a moving target, you have to lead it.
Much has been said and written about the need to bolster the Coalition and international effort to “win” the war in Afghanistan. Almost a year ago, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (and the wise man quoted in the opener), testified to the U.S. House Armed Service Committee that he was setting up a commission to develop a “comprehensive” regional strategy that looks at both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. Since then, the United States has elected a new commander-in-chief; brought in a new commander of all forces in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, General David Petraeus; brought in the “A-Team,” Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Rodriguez, to run the war in Afghanistan; and a new ambassador, retired Army general Karl Eikenberry, who himself commanded forces in Afghanistan while on active duty.
With all this talent and a relatively successful election now completed, certainly victory in Afghanistan draws nigh? Probably not.
What’s the problem?
We’re fighting an entrenched enemy that subscribes to an ideology that has prevailed in the region for centuries. Seven years after the 9/11 attacks, the perpetrators remain at large in the vast ungovernable regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And, while the international community has belatedly come to grips with the fact that Afghanistan is arguably a failing or nearly failed state, it has yet to develop a coherent regional plan.
The additional troops sent to Afghanistan is a good “first step” towards achieving a short-term reversal to Afghanistan’s upward trend in violence, perhaps in the year ahead. But short-term security brought about by a “surge” of troops cannot and should not be a proxy for the regional diplomatic and economic cooperation needed to sustain Afghanistan’s civil society. Undoubtedly, policy-makers in Washington and across the Atlantic are salivating at the prospects of selling the fact that the additional troops provided the security to pull-off the election and may use this success to assuage fears at home about pressure to send troops. But, this sales pitch could be nothing more than a recipe for short-term domestic political success that will ultimately lead to constituency disillusionment.
The transatlantic community should immediately convene a regional conference with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors with the goal of isolating the Taliban insurgents and enhancing regional economic development. The so-called “kinetic” solution to rebuilding Afghanistan, even if it has elements of development spackled over it, simply will not work in isolation.
Yes, Pakistan’s support of the international community’s effort to stem the flow of foreign fighters that stream across the border is critical to Afghanistan’s long-term security. But, so too is the support of Afghanistan’s other neighbors: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, India and perhaps most importantly, Iran. We aren’t there yet with a truly regional approach.
Beyond that, we have to temper our expectations. Al Qaeda and the Taliban subscribe to an ideology that has survived for centuries despite the best efforts of a host of western armies, cultures and philosophies that all say “our way of life is better than your way of life.” The international community, led by the U.S. and its NATO allies, isn’t going to win the war in Afghanistan with its armies, NGOs, or by building roads and schools. To win, we truly have to change the hearts of the Afghan people and that’s a daunting task that could take a couple of generations.
Commander Jim Easaw, U.S. Navy, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not reflect official U.S. Navy or other U.S. Government opinions or policies.